I thought I’d share this little essay that I contributed to the Easter issue of Australian Leadership:
“The Church preaches Christ the risen crucified One and confesses him as Lord to the glory of God the Father.” This is one of my favourite sentences from the Basis of Union, the foundation document of the church I belong to. It’s the description of Christ as “the risen crucified One” that has always stood out me. It’s like a very familiar phrase, but different. Different in a way that makes me stop and think.
The usual way of saying something like this about Christ is to call him “the crucified and risen One”, since that is the order in which the events took place. He was killed by crucifixion. Then he rose from the dead. So when my church adapted parts of its Basis of Union for use in a statement of faith, instead of calling him “the risen crucified One” it called him “the crucified and risen One”. The reversal was unintentional, apparently. And I’m still very disappointed about it.
I’m disappointed because the reversal loses that startling witness: the one who rose is the crucified one. The resurrection did not correct a mistake. It did not undo the decision and action of Jesus’ Roman executioners. It is central to the Good News that we preach on Easter Sunday – and at every other opportunity – that one who rose from the dead is the crucified one. St Thomas sensed how critical it was, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Or, expressed as an affirmation of faith in Gillian Welch’s song: “I will know my Savior when I come to him by the mark where the nails have been” (Welch, 1996).
So this Easter I have been reflecting on why it matters so much that the one who is risen in the crucified one.
The Empire of God vs the Empire of Rome
Recently my attention was drawn to a small but significant issue in biblical translation. It’s about the political metaphor Basileia tou Theou; the central motif in the preaching of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. The English-speaking church has always translated this term “kingdom of God”. There is nothing wrong with that. It connects with what we know about the British traditions of monarchy. But the Sri Lankan theologian Preman Niles has suggested that it would be just as accurate to translate this term “empire of God” – perhaps connecting with what Sri Lankan Christians know about the British Empire and the experience of being colonized. In fact, Niles thinks that using the term “empire of God” will help us to see how Jesus’ ministry was received by the people of Palestine in the early first century:
“Those who heard Jesus, both friend and foe alike, would have heard it as a direct challenge to the Empire of Caesar. It was posed as an alternative in which those who were discards in the Empire of Rome would find value in the empire that Jesus proclaimed. In it ‘the least’ would be first. For ‘the least’ this would be good news” (Niles, 2010, p.18).
The “discards” that Niles refers to were people who did not have any economic value for the Roman Empire. They didn’t own land. They didn’t have jobs or businesses that earned more than they needed to survive from day to day. They couldn’t pay their taxes. They were, Niles says, “expendable” from the point of view of the Roman Empire. And, in several important ways, Jesus was an “expendable” himself. The stories of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke were careful to emphasise the marginal social status and precarious existence of “the child who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). He led the inherited life of “a mere carpenter”. And in his public ministry Jesus put “the least” or “the expendables” right at the centre of the Empire of God as the primary objects of God’s love, justice and grace. In the preaching and ministry of Jesus the empire of God “inverted and challenged the power and values of the Roman Empire”.
Niles says, “His proclamation of the Empire of God would also have been viewed as an attempt to destabilise the Peace of Rome (Pax Romana) through which Rome militarily controlled a vast territory. Rome would have viewed his prophetic action in confronting the Empire of Rome with the Empire of God as sedition. Equally troubling for Rome would have been the titles used for Jesus such as ‘Son of God’, ‘God’ and ‘God from God’, for these were titles used for Augustus Caesar, which almost every subsequent emperor also claimed” (Niles 2010, p.19).
The Crucified One
So Jesus was crucified. That horrific form of public execution was the normal way that the Roman Empire dealt with sedition or resistance of any kind. It was meant to terrorise the population. It was meant to demoralise and break up any anti-Roman movements. It was very common in Palestine under Roman occupation. More than a thousand insurgents were crucified in and around Jerusalem about the time of Jesus’ birth. Tens of thousands were crucified when Rome destroyed the Temple and took back the city of Jerusalem from the rebels in 70 AD. It’s no coincidence that this is around the same time the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were being composed around story of Jesus’ passion and death. Among the first readers of the Gospels, almost everyone would have known someone who had been crucified just like Jesus – a neighbour, an uncle, a father, a husband, a son. They knew for themselves what it meant to be “the least” or “expendable” in the Empire of Rome. They knew it in their own broken hearts, their own wounded spirits, their own damaged minds and imaginations.
Chinese theologian Gao Ying has pointed out that, “The overwhelming majority of those who died [by crucifixion] have been forgotten, buried in the dust of history. They include the ordinary people, those at the bottom of society who were seen as hostile elements by the Roman regime… only the name of Jesus of Nazareth has been remembered through the ages” (Ying 2007, p.25). And even when he rose from the dead, the witnesses to his resurrection found that “it was the common people, those who did not represent mainstream religion or culture, and those on the margins of society, who were first attracted to his gospel”.
And that makes sense. The news of the resurrection of the crucified one was good news for all who, like Jesus, were expendable. Gao Ying says, “The faith of the crucified Jesus has become the power of the weak, the wisdom of the foolish, the glory of the humiliated” (Ying 2007, p.29).
The Risen Crucified One
Leonardo Boff, a Brazilian theologian, has said that the resurrection of Jesus tells us what the crucifixion of the Messiah, the Christ means.
“The one who was raised up is the one who was crucified… Now everything was clear: the conflict waged by Jesus had not been a conflict merely between Jesus’ freedom and the legalistic observance of the law: the conflict had been between the reign of corrupt humanity and the reign of God… The resurrection is not only the event that glorifies and justifies Jesus Christ, his truth, and his attitudes. It is also the manifestation of the reign of God in its plenitude: the epiphany of the future that God has promised. It is the demonstration of what men and women can hope for, because it is God who has promised it to them… The humiliated and the wronged can take heart, then: the messiah is one of themselves. Indeed it is because of this – not in spite of this – that he is the messianic liberator.” (Boff 1987, pp.67-68)
Boff explains that Jesus’ identification with “the least” and “the expendables” was already well known before his death. His proclamation and enactment of the Empire of God – over and against the Empire of Rome – was no secret. After all, it had been his downfall. However the meaning of Jesus ministry “was totally revealed only after the explosion of the resurrection”. The resurrection made his followers look back on all that they’d seen, heard and experienced of Jesus’ ministry and finally grasp its “profound, transcendent, exemplary, and universal significance” (Boff, 1987, p.68).
So that’s what I’ve been reflecting on this Easter. That, and how the gospel of the risen crucified one still pits the Empire of God against the contemporary Empire which counts some people as expendable – First Peoples, asylum seekers and their children, the homeless, child soldiers, people living in poverty… This all looks different after “the explosion of the resurrection” of the crucified one.
Leonardo Boff, Passion of Christ, Passion of the World, New York: Orbis Books, 1987.
Preman Niles, “Prophetic Ministry – Costly Discipleship”. Theologies and Cultures, Vol. VII, No. 1, June 2010, pp.14-35.
Gillian Welch, “By the Mark”, Revival, Produced by T Bone Burnett, Nashville: Almo Sounds, 1996.
Gao Ying, “The Suffering of Christ Makes Foolishness of the World’s Wisdom”, Chinese Theological Review, Vol.20, 2007, pp.24-30.